A Riff Beneath The Tom Petty Sound
By Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer — June 25, 1999
“It really is a challenge,” Mike Campbell is saying, talking from a tour stop in Detroit. “It’s like throwing your children out of the boat to drown.”
Campbell is talking about the most difficult part of his job as guitarist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who will be at the Waterfront Entertainment Centre Saturday (with Lucinda Williams and Marah opening): choosing which tunes from Petty’s immense catalog to play live each night, and which to kill.
For Petty, the radio hits have never stopped coming, going back to late ’70s songs such as “American Girl,” “Breakdown” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” through to the ’90s with “Free Fallin’ ” and “Free Girl Now” from the new, consistently good Echo (Warner Bros.).
Petty has remained remarkably constant musically, placing his stubborn, sneering vocals up against rock-solid songs that draw from a Byrds/Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan axis. And Petty has always counted as his principal instrumentalist his curly-haired buddy who’s one of the understated and intelligent unsung guitar heroes in rock.
Campbell is proud of his reputation as a guy who never plays too much. “I focus on the song,” says the axeman, who travels under the alias Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash’s late Tennessee Two guitarist. “I try to complement the spaces between the singing.”
He does point out, however, that the current set list allows him a few opportunities to stretch, on “It’s Good To Be King,” the surf instrumental “Penetration” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which he says has an ending that “is like riding a wild boar.”
Campbell figures the Heartbreakers owe their longevity to a devotion to craft – and Petty’s ability to write with universal appeal.
“Most of our songs have an element of optimism and hope,” he says. “And we’re fortunate in making songs that you can hear more than once and get something out of.
“The challenge is to come up with choruses that are really memorable, and that’s not as easy as it may seem. There’s a lot picking the best and trimming the filler. The idea is to put a story in three minutes that will last a long time in people’s hearts.”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, with Marah (6:30 p.m.) and Lucinda Williams (8 p.m.) Saturday at the Waterfront Entertainment Center, 1 Harbour Boulevard, Camden. Tickets: $28 and $47.50. Phone: 609-365-1300.